January 25, 2018

The History of Van Ness Ave.

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What makes the Van Ness neighborhood so special?

Originally named Marlette Street, Van Ness Avenue was named for James Van Ness, the seventh mayor of San Francisco, who served from only 1855 to 1856.

While it remains a major artery in San Francisco (and is one of the main north-south thoroughfares), downtown rejuvenation following the 1906 earthquake cemented Market Street as the ‘main street’ of San Francisco.

Van Ness Avenue runs from a spot at the Bay between Fort Mason and Ghirardelli Square, straight down to Market Street, where it turns into South Van Ness, which crosses US Highway 101 and then runs through the Mission district until Cesar Chavez Street. At 125 feet wide, it is one of the widest streets in San Francisco. In the 1870s and 1880s sections of the street began to attract the wealthy and their large homes, in part due to a lack of available land on Nob Hill. By the 1890s mansions lined the avenue, including those of prominent residents, including the Spreckles family, Crocker family, and the Giannini family. Close to downtown and with cable car access up the hill, it was an ideal location.

The avenue was at its zenith when an estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale earthquake struck on April 18th, 1906, at 5:14am. At this time it was still very common for homes to have gas lighting, and as the earthquake shook the city, the gas lines throughout it did as well. Fire soon broke out and went on a rampage through the primarily wooden building frames. While much of Van Ness was initially intact after the earthquake, the street was used as a firebreak by the U.S. Army.

After the quake, many downtown businesses that had been destroyed relocated onto Van Ness. By 1909, however, downtown had been rebuilt and was once again thriving, although Van Ness was still used as a mix of commercial and residential dwellings. Streetcar service started on Van Ness in 1915 for the opening of the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. In the 1920s, apartment buildings began to spring up on the street and the grand auto showrooms that lined the corridor made Van Ness the west coast’s largest Auto Row. After World War 2 the street was designated as a highway and became a main traffic thoroughfare, furthering its location as an ideal place for automobile shopping, a legacy still visible today. The rail lines were removed in the 1950s and replaced with a tree-lined median.

In 2003, 75% of voters approved the sales tax to plan rapid transit service on Van Ness Avenue. In September 2013, the Board of Supervisors, unanimously approved the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project. Today, the Van Ness Avenue corridor serves as a vital connector of neighborhoods and a regional link for travel between Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo Counties. Van Ness Avenue is one of the busiest north-south corridors in the city, serving over 16,000 Muni customers daily on the 47 Van Ness, 49 Mission/Van Ness and 90 San Bruno Owl bus routes as well as Golden Gate Transit customers. It is part of the California State Highway System and of US Route 101, a primary artery that connects Interstate Highways 280 and 80 with the Golden Gate Bridge.

More on James Van Ness

James Van Ness didn't exactly have the best run as mayor -- his tenure was tarnished by the most notorious double-murder and vigilante justice case in San Francisco history.

The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was formed in 1851, in reaction to the Sydney Ducks, the name given to a gang of criminal immigrants from Australia in San Francisco. The vigilantes usurped political power from the corrupt or incompetent officials in the city, conducted secret trials, lynchings, and deportations, which effectively decimated the Sydney Ducks. It was revived again in 1856 in response to rampant crime and corruption in the municipal government of San Francisco, California.

The need for extralegal intervention was apparent with the explosive population growth following the discovery of gold in 1848. The small town of about 900 individuals grew to a booming city of over 200,000 very rapidly. Van Ness was unable to stop the executions of two men charged with murder by shooting by the Vigilantes in 1856. These militias ultimately hung eight people and forced several elected officials to resign. Though it’s not clear if this was the case with Van Ness, it did undermine his authority as a politician during his time in San Francisco. Until then, the mayor would be known as the "President of the Board of Supervisors." Soon after he left office, Van Ness left San Francisco for San Luis Obispo County and in 1871 became a California Senator.

Click here for photos of Victorian buildings before and after the earthquake and fire.


  1. http://www.sfmuseum.org/street/stnames5.html

  2. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/The-stories-behind-San-Francisco-s-street-names-6124330.php#photo-7554507

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Van_Ness

  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Ness_Avenue

  5. http://www.historynet.com/the-great-1906-san-francisco-earthquake-and-fire.htm

  6. http://www.trampsofsanfrancisco.com/defining-san-francisco-how-our-city-became-a-city-part-iii/

  7. http://www.sf-planning.org/ftp/General_Plan/Van_Ness_Ave.htm